Showing posts with label Aristotle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aristotle. Show all posts

Ante Hominem

Aphid farm
Ant tending to its aphid flock
Photo by Max Westby, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license
If you enjoyed any of the animated feature films centered on insect colonies made since 1998, you are in for surprises below. No matter how much they anthromorphised their characters, none of films came close. In fact, in the case of ants, even the word 'anthropomorhic' would seem to be backwards.

Earlier posts here have looked at the origins of agriculture in various contexts, and the implications of the competing theories. One thing the theories all have in common is the starting assumption, of course, that humans retain all the credit. All the archaeological and genetic evidence though has nothing on my theory (playful conjecture) that we could and may have picked it (and much more) up from ants.

The eusocial insects exhibit close models of any of the fundamental structural templates of human society, barring religion (a telling exception for another day). Ant colonies are organised around division of labour (or castes), agriculture, livestock herding, tribalism and even warfare, complete with suicide bombers, chemical weaponry and mercenary forces. What is more, they have been at it for far longer than us, about 5000 times longer. Hence the title. All of that takes communication that is so sophisticated that we are still unraveling its intricate mechanisms. But without scientifically understanding the intricacies, any curious Cro-Magnon human could have come across these ideas as he sat under a tree in deep thought, got distracted by and followed an industrious trail scurrying by.

An observer can readily infer division of labour – ants with different roles are all different sizes, often even different morphology and colour. Even if you naively assume the animals carrying all the food shipments are entirely different from those attacking usurpers, the organisational principle is clear inasmuch as they all cooperate towards deliberate common goals.

Leaf cutter ants Ants growing fungus

Leaves being carried
Photo by Jim Webber serve as a substrate for the fungus farm
Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center via Flickr

Agriculture too is plainly visible in some species – huge parades carrying pieces of leaf laminae into a tunnel where fungi are meticulously cultivated on them and harvested. All the coincidence you need is to pass by right after an animal has disturbed an ant hill. Or, you could be the animal that disturbs it. When you peer in, if they are not harvesting fungi, you might find them rearing scale insects to gather honeydew off their backs, which is uncannily analogous to us milking cattle.

Their ancient demonstration lessons are not limited to organisation of the collective. Ants also use tools. I do give us credit for enough intelligence to have stumbled across this one all on our own. That is why this one is not on the list above. After all, tool use is known among corvids, pachyderms, cetaceans and simians, all of whom are larger and easier to observe. We could have learnt it from any of them!

(As an aside, tools used to be on the hallowed list of things we proudly displayed laminated and framed on our walls - things that separate us from animals. Despite what you may have learnt at school, tool-use came off that list long ago, followed by the likes of empathy, fairness, laughter, self-awareness and memory. At that last one, the animal far exceeds what is expected of average humans. I do not add qualifiers such as ‘far’ lightly. Go ahead, check the link. I dare you to retain your pride intact.)

Weaver ants with larvae
Weaver ants using their own larvae as a tube of glue
Photo by Ria Tan via Flickr under a Creative Commons license
But ants are one up in tool-use too – wait until you hear what their tools include. Some species use their own young as machines of sorts! Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) use the silk from their larvae as the binding material for their elaborate woven nests. And they do not take just the silk to where it is needed. The picture above is the best licensed version I could find, but National Geographic has the money shot here. That is an ant that just brought a larva back from the nursery and is wielding it with pin-precision to extrude silk and fasten leaves together. Raise your hand if that does not shatter your own hermeneutic paradigm of natural ‘order’, whether based on the Aristotelian scala naturae or the Hindu-Buddhist conception of Saṃsāra.